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“I realize I’m repeating myself,” Jonathan said as the carriage eased up to the curb by the governor’s mansion in the center of Veilgrad, “but it bears repeating. This is a trap, Natchua. There’s no reason—”

“Jonathan,” she interrupted, “enough. It would be pointless for Malivette to maneuver me into a trap, given the number of daggers she’s got over my head. She’s already tight with Imperial Intelligence; it would take her one telescroll to ruin my day good and proper. Back me up, Mel,” she added, turning to the carriage’s other occupant. “Whether or not you can trust someone, you can rely on them to act logically toward their goals, and base your plans around that. Right?”

“Almost,” the succubus said with an amused little smile, already shifted into a human disguise—a local woman of Stalweiss coloring this time. “You can very rarely rely on people to act logically, at all. A better word would be ‘predictably.’ But yes, in this case, I agree with your assessment of Dufresne.”

“Back me up, Mel,” Jonathan said sharply. “This is at the very least a hostile move! She shows up out of the blue, demanding you do things, and now you’re being sent into the gods know what and refused to explain it!”

“I think,” Melaxyna said pensively, turning her head to look at the doors of the mansion through the carriage’s window, “you’re half right. This is a sneak attack, not a trap, and we aren’t the target. Consider: Malivette is about to drop Natchua into a situation she doesn’t understand and probably won’t like. It smells to me like the lady governor intends harm to somebody in there, not to us.”

“That tracks,” Natchua said irritably. “Our deal hinged on me being available to do her favors as long as I’m keeping my menagerie of demons in Veilgrad. Malivette Dufresne has all the scalpels she needs, and doesn’t dare wield herself as a hammer despite all the power at her disposal. She had mobs at her manor during the chaos crisis, and she wasn’t even behind that; everybody’s eager enough to blame the local vampire without her swooping around terrorizing people. No, for someone in Vette’s position, I can see how it would be very handy to have an unpredictable warlock she can just kick into the middle of things and then claim she wasn’t involved.”

“Oh, gods,” he grunted, rubbing at his face.

The carriage door was finally opened from the outside by Ruby, who peeked inquisitively in at them. “Everything all right?”

“Yep,” Natchua replied, sliding off her seat and clambering out as the vampire’s handmaid stepped back. “Just a little last-second strategizing. Come on, you two, let’s go see what this rhubarb is about.”

Jade was not in evidence, despite having accompanied Ruby on the driver’s seat. Ruby, with that vague little smile all four of Malivette’s attendants cultivated (a shade more sly than the Narisian average, just enough to be subtly threatening), opened the door to the governor’s mansion and led them inside, leaving the carriage unattended on the street outside, its undead horses standing motionless as tombstones. There was scant possibility of anyone in Veilgrad messing with it.

Natchua let her eyes wander as they passed through the corridors, though there wasn’t much to see as she was not a connoisseur of gothic architecture. This wasn’t her first visit to Veilgrad, but previous class trips had not brought her to this manor. Supposedly it was from here that the city and all of Lower Stalwar Province were actually run, but based on the lack of activity she heard in midmorning on a weekday, she had her doubts. Stretching out her senses, Natchua detected movement and conversation in multiple places throughout the manor, but not nearly the bustle the rule of such a region would generate. More likely administrative tasks were handled at the city hall and nearby structures, while the acting governor Mr. Grusser used the residence for the backroom dealings that kept Veilgrad under control. This city was a cultural nexus where Tiraan, Calderaan and Stalweiss sensibilities collided and often failed to blend; the friction between the heavily Shaathist Stalweiss and the heavily Avenist Calderaan kept local politics at a constant simmer, to say nothing of the Empire’s interest in keeping its fingers in this resource-rich area. Natchua was not a fan of surreptitious dealings that ran other people’s lives, but in fairness, it probably took a fair amount of constant cloak-and-dagger just to keep Veilgrad from exploding politically even when it wasn’t doing so literally, as had happened last time the paladins and their classmates were here.

It would be just her luck if she ended up creating a mess that topped even that. The prospect was regrettably believable.

“Just follow my lead,” she said quietly, but not so much so that the two flanking her one step behind would fail to hear. Ruby could also hear, of course, but that couldn’t be helped. Natchua had brought these two along because they blended best; even Hesthri in a disguise ring had some odd mannerisms that might pass in a crowded nightclub but would invite closer scrutiny in quieter circumstances. And she had wanted at least two to back her up. “Remember: don’t hesitate to interject if you think I need…to be reminded of restraint. Otherwise, try not to draw attention.”

“I do admire a lady who knows her weak points,” Jonathan said, tension warring with amusement in his tone. Melaxyna just reached out to pat her shoulder.

Ruby half-turned as she walked to give her a coy little glance, unperturbed by Natchua’s answering cold stare.

Fortunately, the next door through which Ruby guided them appeared to be their destination. Beyond it was a snug little sitting area with doors set in three walls; waiting for them were Jade and Lars Grusser, Malivette’s steward and the man who did the actual governing of the province. Natchua had met him once before, in passing. He was the perfect foil for Malivette: the living portrait of a bland, inconspicuous bureaucrat, to the point that it took her a couple of seconds of staring and the forewarning of whom they had come to meet to confirm it. She would not have sworn under oath that he was the same human.

Evidently the disinterest was not mutual.

“Why, it’s Natchua, isn’t it?” Grusser said, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

“Nope,” she replied, deadpan, “I’m one of the other green-haired drow. Common mistake.”

“You’re doing the thing, Natch,” Jonathan murmured behind her. Annoyance warred in her with guilty acknowledgment that he was right, as well as…another source of distraction. He had leaned in close enough that his warm breath was far too tingly on her sensitive ear.

“Ah…hah,” Grusser said, nonplussed. “Well! Jade tells me Malivette has sent us a negotiator to help resolve this little stand-off.”

Natchua blinked. “…did you say negotiator?”

Melaxyna made a noise that was too perfectly a strifled laugh to have been anything but premeditated.

“Well, I’ve learned to trust Vette’s judgment, and I’ll confess at this point I’m grateful for any help,” Grusser said, running a hand over his hair in frustration. “This is the second day of no progress being made, and quite frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t come to violence already. I’m confident that if something miraculous doesn’t unfold, it will before another sunset.”

“So, no pressure,” she sighed. “Summarize the situation for me, please?”

“Vette didn’t…? Oh. Well, then, in brief, it’s to do with the reconstruction. Most of the rebuilding of the city is either done or nearing completion, after the chaos crisis, but the catacombs were a major source of the problem. They provided a very convenient hiding place for cultists, and also are mostly emptied out now, after the…use to which the ancient burials were put.”

“That’s a very polite way to describe a skeleton army,” Jonathan commented.

Grusser sighed, nodding. “Well, the rebuilding started off later because the whole maze had to be crawled over by exorcists and archaologists first, but it’s now underway. We’re updating the city’s sewer system while we’re down there, and essentially retrofitting the upper levels of the entire catacomb system to be more…well, habitable, and more importantly, controllable. It’s an ambitious project that will effectively add an entire subterranean layer to the city. And for this, the city and the Empire have brought in dwarven contractors, since there’s a lack of domestic specialists in underground construction. We’ve never needed any, with the dwarves being as happy as they are to rent out their services. And of course, they do excellent work. The sewers of Tiraas are dwarven work; before that, the city flooded some three times in an average year.”

“Sounds like the matter is well in hand, then,” Natchua said impatiently. “Why do you need a negotiator?”

He grimaced. “As it turns out, there is another party interested in joining the work, also skilled in underground construction. We have no real need of them, and our existing contractors object strongly to their involvement. But, it turns out they have an official prerogative to put in at least a bid, and since we neglected to offer them the opportunity, they are now insisting on being assigned a share of the work. Unfortunately it’s over my head, and even Malivette’s. There is…an international treaty involved.”

Natchua closed her eyes. “Oh, bloody brilliant.” No wonder Malivette had called her in for this. Damn vampire was probably laughing herself sick right now.

“I don’t suppose,” Grusser said cautiously, “you have some standing that gives you…”

He trailed off at her bark of harsh, contemptuous laughter.

“Oh, pretty much the opposite, m’lord steward. But…I will see what I can do.”

“Ah, right,” he said warily, then turned and picked up a thick folder from the room’s sole desk, which he then held out to her. “I’ve prepared a set of documents you’ll find applicable. Established plans, reports on the work done thus far, a copy of the treaty in question with the relevant sections underlined, copies of the formal petitions and complaints submitted by the parties involved. If you’d like to take some time to study…”

“Thank you,” she said, immediately handing the folder off to Jonathan, “but I think I’d rather get right to work, as it were. Lead the way.”

“They’re assembled in the conference room just through here, actually,” he said, indicating one of the doors.

Natchua frowned. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Indeed, you wouldn’t. We’re prepared for elven guests; I situated the discussion in the Silent Room. The door enchantments ensure absolute privacy.”

“You sealed them off where they can’t be heard?” she said skeptically. “Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re already dead.”

“I rather hope not,” he said. “The paperwork alone…”

“All right, let’s get this over with,” Natchua grunted, striding toward the indicated door.

“You think you can just get a delicate negotiation over with?” Jonathan demanded. “I don’t think that’s how that works, Natch.”

“Jonathan, Jonathan, when are you going to learn? As I had to explain to someone recently, I don’t do things the way they work.”

She yanked open the door, causing the sound of an argument in progress to billow out, and strode through it. The discussion broke off at her entry, and there was silence until Jonathan and Melaxyna had trailed in after her, the latter shutting the door.

“What’s this, then?” demanded one of the dwarves. “More of you?”

Three dwarves were seated along one side of the long table, a woman and two men. The woman wore an avuncular suit with gold cufflinks, while her companions were both attired in sturdy denim, cotton, and leather suited to physical laborers. All were glaring across the table with open hostility at the two impassive drow women who had now turned to regard Natchua and her companions, no sign of surprise crossing their features.

“I’m not with them,” Natchua said briskly. “The Duchess felt this discussion could use a neutral perspective.”

“Neutral?” the dwarf woman exploded, rising from her chair.. “And so she sends another drow! I’ll not have this blatant—”

“Sit your ass down!” Natchua barked.

Total silence descended. The dwarf did not sit down, but blinked at her in bemusement. If she’d spent the last two days contending with typical Narisian reserve and expected more of the same, that had to have been startling.

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” one of the drow said quietly. “I confess, I am astonished to find you, of all people, here. And you are in the employ of Lady Dufresne?”

Oh, lovely. Now everyone in Tar’naris who might care where she was would know by the time a telescroll could be sent to Fort Vaspian. Fucking Malivette… Mastering her irritation, she kept her own voice even and soft. “Yil and y’nad, is it. My, my, the old bitch must’ve been royally torqued off.”

Both drow stiffened slightly, indulging in reproachful frowns.

“Come again?” Jonathan inquired.

“Apparently my mother had my honorifics changed,” she explained. “You don’t often hear those; usually anybody who offends their House that badly is just kicked out of it. Somebody must really want to have a claim to shove me in a spider box.”

“You know, I would honestly like to see someone try that,” Melaxyna said in a fascinated tone. Natchua gave her a filthy look, then turned back to the two bemused Narisians.

“Anyway. You may report to whoever it is you curry favor with that it is just Natchua. I renounce House Dalmiss, Tar’naris, and in particular my bloodless wendigo of a mother, and anyone who attempts to come collect me will be mailed home in a soul jar. Now!” She grinned broadly, and modified her tone to a sugary simper. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

A moment of silence answered her.

“I’m Agatha Svanwen,” the dwarf woman said finally, “and it’s my company that’s been performing the underground renovations in Veilgrad. To, I want it noted, nothing but praise from the local government.”

“I am Alrith nor Alvenn n’rin Vyendir,” one of the drow said, inclining her head fractionally toward Natchua, “here to represent my House’s claim to the opportunity we are owed by Tar’naris’s treaty with the Tiraan Empire.”

“I am Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion,” said the other, also nodding slightly. She had been the one to name Natchua. “I have been tasked by my matriarch with the honor of assisting in making the necessary arrangements to the satisfaction of all involved.”

“Not ruddy likely, that,” one of the dwarf men sneered. Neither male had offered names, and Narisian sensibilities being what they were, neither Natchua nor the other two felt it necessary to ask.

“An Awarrion,” she said, sighing softly. “Well. I suppose that buys you a smidge of favor. Ashaele is the only matriarch in that nest of vipers I even slightly respect, and I owe one of her daughters.”

“Excuse me,” Svanwen said sharply, “but I imagine you understand why I’m not happy to hear our supposedly neutral negotiator open by acknowledging a bias in favor of my enemy, here?”

“Let me add some context,” Natchua said with another wide grin. “The favor that buys her is not being summarily kicked in the throat for misnaming me. Now, then!” She stepped up to one narrow end of the table and leaned forward, planting her fists upon it. “Kindly state your positions, as succinctly as you can.”

Shinar and Ms. Svanwen’s eyes met, and for a wonder they both seemed more bemused than hostile. After a tense pause, Shinar nodded politely and gestured the dwarf to proceed.

“There’s not much to tell,” Svanwen said shortly, finally sitting back down, “and forgive me if I’ve grown a little sick of going over it. We were hired to do a job, we came to do a job, we’ve been doing our job—and doing it well, I might add. There was no problem here of any kind until these—” She broke off, looking warily at Natchua, then continued in a more careful manner. “…people showed up and involved themselves. Now work has been stopped, I’m paying skilled laborers to sit on their thumbs, the entire shebang is falling behind schedule and nobody is happy. Nor will be, until these interlopers butt out!”

“Tar’naris, in accordance with its treaty with the Empire,” Shinar said smoothly, “is granted the right to submit an offer to participate in certain types of infrastructural activity relevant to our specific skills as a culture, including subterranean construction. House Vyendir has already been denied that by what I feel certain was an accidental omission, and not a malicious breach of treaty. This has been an awkward situation for all involved, and it has always been our position to seek a compromise, rather than assert sole right to the work in question. Ms. Svanwen has, thus far, declined even the slightest measure to meet us partway.”

“And why the bloody hell should I?” Svanwen demanded. “Your treaty isn’t my problem. I have a contract, and it includes nothing to do with fucking drow!” She caught herself again, glancing at Natchua with a subtle wince.

“All right, then,” Natchua said, straightening back up. “Do either of you contest the facts of the other’s position, as stated?”

Shinar shook her head. “I understand and sympathize with Ms. Svanwen’s position, and give her full credit for not attempting to deceive us, or you, at any point.”

“Those who’re right have no need to deceive—”

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

Svanwen drew in a breath and let it out in a huff, scowling. “Yes, fine. I’m no expert on your treaty, but she accurately described her attempts to insert her people into my business.”

“Very good,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Now, Shinar, I would like to hear you answer Ms. Svanwen’s question. Why the bloody hell should she stir herself to meet you halfway on this?”

Another moment of silence passed, marred slightly but a muffled chuckle from Melaxyna.

“Because,” Shinar said finally, her voice quieter now, “that is what civilized people do. Ms. Svanwen is not at fault for this situation, but it is what it is. We have our rights. A person who is in an uncomfortable situation has the option of making an accommodation with it, or being swept aside.”

“Well said,” Natchua concurred. “So! Since we all agree that you aren’t needed or wanted here and are only delaying this task by your presence, have you considered voluntarily withdrawing your claim?”

“That is not on the table,” Alrith said with an audible edge to her tone. Evidently two days of being shouted at by dwarves could fray even a Narisian’s reserve, if they weren’t an Awarrion and trained for such stress.

“I think,” Natchua replied pleasantly, “you should seriously consider putting it on the table.”

“Excuse me,” Shinar said in deadly calm, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I am certain that was not your intent. Would you like to clarify?”

“Do you think I’m out of line, here?” Natchua asked, turning back to her own companions.

“Nope,” Jonathan said immediately. He had the folder open and was leafing slowly through it, perusing pages with a practiced eye. “Been a while since I was in construction on this scale, but these work logs are impressive. These dwarves have put in fine work thus far. Everything’s been ahead of schedule, under budget and up to standards. Basically what we’ve got here is honest folks doing good work and bureaucrats mucking it up by trying to profit from what they’ve no business being involved in.”

“We have our rights!” Alrith insisted.

“What you don’t have is a three-way dilemma,” Natchua retorted. “This is not you against the dwarves against the province. Everything was fine and everyone getting along swimmingly before you showed up. This matter consists of Lady Dufresne’s government and Ms. Svanwen’s company doing just fine until you and your rights came blustering in from nowhere to make a godawful pest of yourselves. A veteran negotiator such as Shinar must surely be well aware of this shaky position.”

“In fact,” Shinar replied, “we have a very firm position, as laid out by treaty.”

“A firm position that gives you absolutely no prospect of winning,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Your best case scenario is to have a lot of innocent House Vyendir laborers stranded in a city where everyone hates them and resents their presence. I don’t know if you’re up on local history, but Veilgrad isn’t kind to the vulnerable and unwanted. Or, you could write all this off as a bad job, go home to your dank spider hole, and cease making an abominable nuisance of yourselves.”

The dwarves were now watching this exchange as avidly as children gawking at a parade.

“Are you acquainted with recent Imperial history, Natchua?” Shinar countered. “It was not very long ago that the previous Duke of House Madouri was executed for treason against the Silver Throne—for, among other things, deliberately intervening in the relations between Tar’naris and Tiraas. Perhaps Duchess Dufresne should be reminded of these events before sending her agents to…negotiate.”

“Excuse me,” Natchua whispered, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I’m sure you couldn’t possibly be that fucking stupid.”

“I intend only the best for all parties involved,” Shinar said with a placid little smile, her eyes half-lidded and knowing. “I firmly believe that no situation is so uncomfortable that a compromise cannot be reached.”

Natchua stepped around the table and began to slowly pace back and forth behind the drow. Alrith stiffened noticeably.

“One,” Natchua said softly, and the fairy lamps in the room dimmed. The dwarves glanced nervously at them. “The previous head of House Madouri was a corrupt, incompetent fool who mismanaged his province into the ground and sought to undermine the Emperor at every opportunity. His daughter, who was instrumental in getting rid of him, has single-handedly resuscitated the economy of Tiraan Province in less than a year, and that while ruling it remotely from Last Rock. She is also closely aligned with House Tirasian. Ravana’s a friend of mine,” she added in a confidential tone, leaning down toward Shinar from behind as she passed. An exaggeration—Ravana was a megalomaniacal little creep with whom Natchua was just as happy being on politely distant terms—but there was no reason Shinar needed to know that. “Now, can you guess which of those two options better describes Malivette Dufresne?”

She continued pacing for several more steps, letting that sink in. The lamps had continued to dim; now, the shadows in the corners of the room were deeper and darker than they had any reason to be, even with the light running low.

“Two,” Natchua said suddenly, just when Alrith had been about to crack and break the silence. “Malivette Dufresne is not here. I am not affiliated with her in any formal capacity. I’m just here as a favor to an acquaintance; I’m not even a citizen of Veilgrad. So if your intention is to run crying to the Empire about how I was mean to you…well, knock your little self out, precious. The only living person who cares less than I is Duchess Dufresne.”

The whispering had begun at the very edge of hearing, even for elves; with Natchua talking over it, the words would have been barely audible even to the Narisians. It swelled, though, smoothly but quickly, until even the dwarves could hear the faint breath of voices from the ever-darker corners of the room. Even Jonathan had backed up against the door, now, eyes wide in unease. Melaxyna just stood placidly with her arms folded; she had somehow contrived to position herself so that the fading light cast her face in a series of ominous shadows. There was still no real meaning in the whispers, just disjointed snatches of gibberish and occasional demonic.

Natchua placed a hand on Shinar’s shoulder and leaned forward between the two drow. “Three,” she said, herself barely above a whisper. “If you’ve been here a few days, you’ll have begun to notice. This is a place where chaos and cultists rise out of the catacombs, bringing undead and worse. Where cemeteries come alive, and werewolves howl in the mountains at night. Those who travel the forests do so in groups, if they want to come back. The last nobility of Veilgrad are a vampire and a warlock. Of all the rumors that swirl through the streets, only the least wild are made up.” She added a second hand to Arlith’s shoulder, grinning when the woman flinched. “People disappear in Veilgrad.”

She held them in silence for a moment. By that point, the fairy lamps were sullen reddish patches in a dim room, which did nothing to explain the writhing shadows which shifted across the walls. Natchua only belatedly noticed that both male dwarves had lit up with golden divine auras, which were doing nothing to push back the darkness.

She clapped both drow women on the shoulder once, and straightened up. “Some people should think about disappearing voluntarily, while they still have that option.”

Shinar rose abruptly but smoothly, shoving aside her chair and pivoting in place to stare at Natchua, icy anger plain on her features now.

“I speak for Tar’naris,” she hissed, “and I will not be bullied by a selfish, disrespectful brat.”

“Oh, no,” Natchua whispered, “it’s happening already.”

The darkness swelled, congealed, rose, and when it was gone, so was Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion.

“What?!” Arlith squawked, her reserve shattering, and tried to scrabble away only to freeze when she almost fell out of her chair. “Where is she?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s fine, don’t worry,” Natchua said, strolling around her and back toward the door. “Veilgrad’s cathedral spire is very tall, but elves are quite agile. She should be able to get down pretty easily. And who better than an Awarrion to explain to the police what she was doing monkeying about on a protected landmark?”

“It’s a very sunny day, you know,” Melaxyna said in a sepulchural voice from one dark corner. “I understand drow eyes are…vulnerable, in the sunlight.”

Natchua made a show of hesitating in thought, then turned to the succubus and raised one chiding finger. “Now, now, that’s a negotiator of Tar’naris you’re talking about. Have a little faith.”

“You can’t…” Arlith choked off when Natchua turned back toward her.

The woman flinched again when she reached out to gently take her by the shoulder.

“Go home,” she said in a soft, kind tone, as if soothing a child. “Tell your House what you found. There’s no profit for you in Veilgrad. There’s nothing here for you but evil.”

Arlith stared up at her like a frozen rabbit.

“Go!” Natchua snarled, her voice cracking through the small conference room.

Arlith exploded out of her chair in a panicked dash and raced to the door with all the speed an elf could muster; Jonathan barely got out of the way in time for her to claw it open and scramble out, leaving it ajar. He gently pushed it shut behind her.

Just like that, the whispering and shadows cut off and the darkness vanished, leaving the room as pleasantly lit as ever.

Natchua turned back to the dwarves, finding all three had backed their chairs up against the far wall and were staring at her as if at a monster. Which…was fair.

“I’m sure the Duchess appreciates all the good work you’ve put in so far,” she said brightly. “Lars Grusser is a capable administrator, but…these things happen. If anything else comes up that he can’t seem to deal with, feel free to reach out to Malivette directly. All right, then!” She clapped her hands together, guiltily enjoying it a little when the dwarves all twitched in reaction to the sound. “Another successful negotiation, resolved. Let’s run along, now, these fine people have plenty of work to catch up on.”

She led the way back into the sitting room outside, pausing to let the others catch up. After looking back through the door, Melaxyna pulled it closed behind her; evidently the dwarves weren’t in a hurry to join them. Dwarves, after all, were famously reasonable folk.

Neither Grusser nor Malivette’s handmaids were in evidence. Of course; they wouldn’t have reasonably expected anything to be resolved in such a short time. Arlith, of course, was long gone.

“So that’s her play,” Melaxyna mused aloud.

Natchua turned back to her, drawing in a breath. Shapeshifting aside, this was the main reason she had brought the succubus along. She herself was painfully out of her depth when being maneuvered about by aristocrats, and fully knew it. Melaxyna was another matter. “You have a thought?”

“A whole host of people are about to know exactly where you are, and what kind of power you’re messing around with,” Melaxyna said seriously, holding her gaze. “Those drow will go squealing to both their Houses, and even if they don’t reach out to the Empire directly, House Awarrion absolutely will. They’ll also inform House Dalmiss.”

“I’m not worried about anything my mother or Ezrakhai might be able to send after me,” Natchua said dismissively. “You think Malivette’s trying to get me in trouble with the Empire? That still doesn’t make sense, she wouldn’t have to go to such an effort. All she has to do is tell them. I haven’t specifically done anything to cheese off Imperial Intelligence but I can’t imagine they’d be happy about anything I’m involved in.”

“I thought it was fishy you were able to talk Malivette down at all,” Melaxyna admitted. “Considering what you showed up with and what her position was. Letting you establish a base in Veilgrad was just…weird. The fact that she wants to use you as some kind of fixer makes it more clear, but this completes the pattern. If she tells the Empire or anyone else you’re here making trouble, she becomes your enemy. But! If she puts you in positions where you can’t avoid attracting their attention, then she can use her clout to prevent them from taking you away.”

“Shit,” Jonathan said feelingly. “She’s right. That vampire isn’t trying to destroy you, she’s trying to control you. If she becomes your only protector from the Empire or the Church or whoever else…”

“Then she gets her fixer,” Natchua finished, her face twisting into a scowl. “And she gets to keep her. Oh, well fucking played, Vette.”

“How much does she know about…what you’re actually trying to do?” Jonathan asked.

“Malivette is under the impression that I’m on a campaign to hunt down remaining Black Wreath cells. Which isn’t inaccurate, just…less than complete. After all, she has reason to empathize with that, considering the Wreath’s involvement with the chaos crisis.”

“We can always leave,” Melaxyna pointed out. “It would mean sacrificing your investment with Sherwin and the horogki…”

“More than that,” Natchua said, shaking her head. “Sherwin gives us access to resources, not just a leaky roof over our head. We wouldn’t have any of that hiding out in some ruin in the wilderness. House Leduc also has a veneer of legitimacy and a history with diabolism. No, that’s the perfect position for us to take as a base. That’s why Vette is doing this, she knows I won’t abandon it easily.”

She paused, frowning deeply in thought. Then, suddenly, her expression shifted, a smile curling across her mouth.

“Ohhh, hell,” Jonathan groaned. “I know that look. That’s the look that happens right before one of your trademark lunatic schemes.”

“Well, after all,” Natchua said reasonably, “Malivette likes to surround herself with pretty girls. And oh, look! I have one whom I was just fretting over what to do with.”

Melaxyna clapped a hand over her eyes. “Natchua, no.”

“Stop it, this could not be more perfect. Malivette and Kheshiri both like to play mind games, right? Well, let them chew on each other for a while. No matter which loses, I win.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said, “because that’s always how it ends up, isn’t it.”

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Dusk was falling as the students disembarked from Malivette’s ostentatious carriages outside their destination. It seemed few people in Veilgrad were anxious to be out after or even too shortly before dark, to judge by the lack of passersby in this central area of the city. Those who were out on the streets, though, stared closely at them, some pausing unabashedly to gawk.

“Why do I have the feeling they’re not enraptured by our good looks?” Toby murmured.

“It’s a safe bet people in the city know whose carriages these are,” Trissiny replied. “Why do I have the feeling this is going to lead to trouble down the road?”

“There are access tunnels leading from the manor to various parts of the city,” Pearl said, stepping gracefully down from the driver’s seat of the carriage. Somehow, incredibly, she managed this without disturbing her expensive dress. “The Mistress considered sending you out through those, but you were already seen entering the carriages at the Rail platform. It will come out sooner or later that you are staying with us.”

“Wise,” Shaiene agreed, nodding. “Whether or not our associations are approved of, attempting to hide them would only make us look more suspicious.”

Jade descended to the pavement and strolled over to her counterpart, speaking as she did so. “Remember, kids, Mr. Grusser is technically not a noble, and his official title is Steward for House Dufresne, but for all intents and purposes, he is the acting governor of this city and the surrounding province. He doesn’t stand much on ceremony, but the man is popular and good at his job—a suitable combination for a public servant. He should be treated with due respect.”

“Is that really a concern?” Juniper asked, tilting her head quizzically. “Do we seem like the kind of people who’d be rude to the man in charge?”

“Well, let’s keep in mind that Arquin’s been in there for a couple hours and be prepared to do some damage control,” Ruda snorted.

“I don’t think you give Gabriel very much credit,” Fross said reprovingly. “So he’s not very practiced socially; he is trying, and getting better.”

“Also, he’s not just some kid anymore,” Teal noted. “The Hand of Vidius can probably get away with a gaffe here and there.”

“There’s another thing,” said Pearl. Jade gave her a pointed look, which she returned. After a tense pause, she turned her face back toward the cluster of students and continued. “Mr. Grusser’s consort, Eleny Feathership, is not his wife and has no legal status. She is, however, as loved by him as any bride, and also quite popular among the citizenry. I suggest you consider her the lady of the manor, and act accordingly.”

“There it is again,” Juniper complained. “Why would we be mean to this guy’s girlfriend?”

“It isn’t that,” Jade said with a wry little smile. “You might be…surprised, however.”

“Less so now,” Pearl added. “The Mistress enjoys her little jokes, but I fear too much social isolation has blunted her sense of what’s good fun and what may be hurtful. You are not going in completely unaware, but that is all I will say on the matter. She did wish for you to have a surprise this evening.”

“I’m thinkin’ the fewer of those we have, the better,” Ruda commented.

“Are you just…going to wait out here?” Teal asked a moment later, when the students had started moving toward the door and their drivers did not.

“We should remain with the carriages,” Pearl said, smiling. “It discourages pranksters.”

“Is that safe, though?” Teal asked, frowning. “I mean… Malivette said there’d been two riots. People attacked her house.”

“The Mistress has a penchant for dramatic effect,” said Jade, rolling her eyes. “It was more like one long riot with two particularly busy spells. She had to go outside twice, but after her second…performance…I highly doubt anyone in Veilgrad will challenge her or us directly. Unattended carriages might be just too tempting, however. So, here we stay.”

“I mean no disrespect,” Toby said diplomatically, “and you surely know the city better than we… But if it comes to another riot or something even similar, well… You’re two young women in fancy dresses.”

“They will be fine,” Trissiny said from up ahead. She caught Jade’s eye and nodded. “Trust me. Nothing around here is going to threaten them.”

“Now, is this you knowin’ something we don’t,” Ruda demanded, “or are you just willing to throw the vampire’s pals too the wolves?”

“Do any of you actually know anything about vampires?” Trissiny asked.

“A little!” Fross chimed. “A…very little. I really need to hit the books and bone up on undead. I was not expecting that information to be relevant on this trip.”

“What do you know about vampires?” Teal asked Trissiny.

“If it lurks in the night and kills people, I’ve been trained to destroy it,” the paladin replied. “I’ll bring you all up to speed on everything I know later, though that research is still a good idea, Fross. My own intel is singularly focused, and we presumably won’t be destroying Malivette.”

“You had better move along,” Pearl said gently. “You’re expected for dinner; it won’t do to be late. Mr. Grusser might think we delayed you on purpose.”

“Righto, then,” Ruda said with a shrug. “If you’re sure…”

Despite its foreboding outer walls, the general architecture within Veilgrad might be best described as “quaint.” It ran heavily to tall stone foundations and whitewashed walls braced by dark-stained beams. The structure to which they had been delivered was a particularly large specimen of the style, half fortress and half overblown cottage, and somehow it all worked. The elaborately carved window shutters and corner posts beautifully offset the grim towers of granite blocks; in some places, graceful wood-and-plaster walls rose straight from behind battlements which were obviously decorative rather than functional.

The building had been described to them as the administrative center of Veilgrad, encompassing both its city hall and the residence of the mayor, whom they had come to visit. Thus, they’d been brought to a rear entrance, where a small cul-de-sac made room for the carriages. Rather than climbing the broad steps to the hall’s towering front doors, they approached a much smaller, more cozy entrance, flanked by cheerful fairy lamps and narrow windows.

Toby pulled the bell; the door was opened mere moments later, revealing an older man in understated livery, his coat a dark purple offset by sober deep gray.

“Good evening, sir and ladies,” he said. “Welcome to Dufresne House. Please, come in; you are expected.”

He stepped back, bowing them through, and the students trooped in, gathering uncertainly in the hall while the servant shut the door behind them. It was warmly lit, fairy lamps shining through golden glass sconces; the stone floor and dark-paneled walls were decorated by a long rug and hanging tapestries. An actual suit of armor stood next to the door.

“This way, if you please,” the servant said diffidently, ushering them forward. “The Steward awaits you in the dining room with the last member of your party. Dinner will be served anon. Please, enter and be comfortable.”

It was a pretty short distance to the dining room, reached by a narrow side hall; they could already hear voices, one of which was laughing. The other was familiar.

“I still can’t believe it! A princess!” one speaker said, still chortling. “Right in the foot!”

“Well, I can’t deny it worked. Those horses got one whiff of demon and went haring off like…well, like they’d seen a demon. That doesn’t mean I’m ever going to let go of it, of course.”

“Oh, indeed, you should milk that for every precious drop. It’s not often you get something to hold over a woman; usually that goes the other way ’round!”

They’d begun filing into the dining room as he spoke, and at the last sentence Trissiny cleared her throat pointedly.

At the head of the long table, the man who had been seated there looked up and quickly rose to his feet, beaming in apparent pleasure at his guests. Beside him, Gabriel stood a moment later, grinning. Mayor Grusser was surprisingly young, somewhere between his later youth and earliest middle years; it was hard to say precisely. His Stalweiss origins showed clearly in his fair hair, pale complexion and square features. That was no surprise, the name having been a tip-off, and anyway more than half the population of Veilgrad were Stalweiss, most of the rest being Tiraan. Before the Imperial conquest, it had been considered part of the Stalrange. He was tall, but in addition to his relative youth, was also quite slim of build. Somehow his image didn’t quite match the title of his office.

“Everyone! Welcome!” Grusser exclaimed, enthusiastically waving them forward. “Please, please, everyone, sit, make yourselves comfortable—we don’t over-emphasize ceremony here. While you are my guests, my home is your home. I am Lars Grusser, Steward of House Dufresne and sort of the mayor by default of Veilgrad. And you are… Of course, please allow me to guess. Gabriel has been telling me the most hilarious stories—I feel as if I already know each of you!”

Their round of introductions was just coming to a close when another door at the opposite end of the room opened, apparently by itself. A pause fell, Juniper trailing off her apology for not being able to bring her pet (fortunately, she wasn’t positioned to see her classmates’ expressions), as everyone turned to look quizzically at the door. Those on the wrong side of the table couldn’t immediately see anyone present.

“Oh, heaven’s sake, Lars, why am I the last one to dinner in my own house?” a female voice exclaimed. “You could have sent for me—I thought they weren’t arriving till later!”

“Well, that was the plan, love,” Grusser said, smiling broadly and rising from his seat again. “But you know how Vette enjoys her little pranks. Fortunately Hans had more foresight than we, otherwise our guests might have been waiting a long time for dinner. Everyone, this is my companion, Eleny Feathership.”

Gabriel had already got to his feet, bowing courteously to the new arrival; the others respectfully stood in the next moments, most trying not to look confused or startled after Pearl’s warning.

Eleny was a gnome, scarcely more than three feet tall, with curly brown hair that fell to her waist. She wore a conservatively cut dress of red brocade, and smiled warmly up at Grusser as he fell to one knee beside her, taking her hand and placing a gentle kiss on her knuckles.

“Ah, yes, Vette’s jokes. You’re right, love, one of us really ought to have seen that coming. Well, here we are now!” She smiled broadly up at her guests. “Did I miss the introductions?”


 

Dinner was plentiful and good. The simple and hearty fare consisted of Stalweiss staples: sausage and cabbage soup, fried potatoes, wedges of spicy cheese, and apples for dessert. The only thing missing from the traditional spread was beer. Apparently Professor Tellwyrn’s drinking policy had been advertized ahead of them. Mayor or no mayor, Grusser clearly was wise enough to respect it.

Once over the initial surprise, the students found their host and hostess excellent conversationalists, skilled at maintaining a pleasant mood over dinner. Rehashing some of Gabriel’s stories provided them plenty of fodder; Ruda in particular chose to challenge his interpretations of certain events. Grusser sat at the head of the long table, Eleny at the far end, her seat specially designed to keep her at the same level as the rest of the diners. After the confusion and subtle menace that had marked their visit to Veilgrad thus far, it was altogether a blessedly pleasant evening.

Eventually, though, apples were being polished off, the efficient manservant Hans was removing plates, and finally the mayor leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on the table in front of him, and spoke in a deceptively casual tone.

“So! I understand you’ve been sent here to find and remove the source of the troubles we have been experiencing.”

Silence suddenly fell, the sophomores glancing around at each other. Eleny watched them all, her expression pleasantly neutral.

“First of all,” Toby began, “we greatly appreciate your patience, Mr. Grusser. Please understand the last thing anyone here intends is to step on your authority in any way. Professor Tellwyrn has a tendency to assign these…projects…without much regard for how people will be affected by them.”

“Well,” Grusser said with a wry smile, “my ‘authority,’ or lack thereof, is a sort of complicated matter. The political situation in Veilgrad is…unusual, and somewhat tense, but it has worked for us. At least until very recently. I will tell you this, though.” He leaned forward again, his expression growing intent. “I am only a few years younger than Malivette; I was but a schoolboy when she was attacked by the vampire and House Dufresne all but destroyed. I knew her, though, distantly. We did not really socialize, but my family have been stewards to hers for generations, and I was definitely aware of her. She was always such a bright girl, cheerful and fond of jokes. After that…” He sighed heavily. “Well. It was certainly to be expected that she would be full of darkness, given all that she had experienced. I only saw her once more before she left for the University. I recall thinking, at the time, that that was the face of a woman who truly, deeply hated herself, the world and everything in it.

“Then,” he continued pensively, “four years later, I was working as a secretary under my father when she returned. The darkness was still there, obviously, and I rather think always will be. But she was herself again. To the extent that it was possible, whatever happened at that school put her back right. She smiled and laughed again, had friends.”

“Oh, did she ever have friends,” Eleny said, grinning.

“Indeed, my dear, and that is the next point I was about to make,” Grusser said, nodding to her. “She came back with half a dozen classmates, visiting for the summer before going off to resume their own lives. At that time, my friends, Veilgrad was suffering a significant demon problem.”

“Demon problem?” Trissiny said sharply.

“The city had had one for a good many years,” he replied solemnly, “though it had escalated in the years since the fall of House Dufresne. By that point, people walked about armed; there were two known katzils nesting somewhere in the roofs, imps had a tendency to appear in the streets at night, and there was an incubus operating in the city, spreading chaos. He was the worst of all.”

“What was he trying to do?” Teal asked, fascinated.

“I am glad to say that the minds of demons are inscrutable to me,” Grusser said with a grimace.

“He wasn’t necessarily trying to do anything in particular,” Trissiny noted. “An incubus would attempt to destabilize whatever city he found himself in just on general principles.”

“That summer,” Grusser continued, his grin returning, “all of that ended. Oh, the University graduates were very subtle. I only know they were involved at all because of my father’s position; it was to us that they came for advice on navigating the city. Within a few weeks, the demons were just gone, and the next we heard, nearly all of House Leduc had been quietly arrested in the night by Imperial Intelligence and shipped off to trial in Tiraas.”

“This House was responsible for the demon attacks?” Shaeine asked, frowning in polite disapproval.

“No official confirmation of that was ever published,” Eleny said, rolling her eyes, “but it was an open secret from the beginning. Veilgrad started suffering intermittent demonic problems at the same time members of one of its two noble families started universally dying of sudden cancer in their forties, while nevertheless growing richer by means no banker could seem to track. Subtle, they were not.”

“Subtle enough to avoid official censure, at least until the University people stepped in and broke them,” Grusser said with obvious satisfaction. “The point of my story, friends, is that I have no objection to your presence or activities here. None. I don’t presume to know what happens at that school of yours, but Professor Tellwyrn clearly knows what she is about. As do her students. Now that Veilgrad is suffering from some unknown darkness—again—I have to admit being relieved that you are here.” He grinned, and winked. “Meddling.”

“Perhaps you can elucidate the political situation for us?” Shaeine suggested. “You spoke of two houses. Our hosts said that House Dufresne were your employers, yet you speak as if they are gone.”

“Yes, quite right,” he replied. “Well, to begin, Veilgrad has had two resident Houses since it first became an Imperial province. Houses Dufresne and Leduc arrived simultaneously, and in fact were instrumental in the Tiraan conquest and the subsequent campaign into the Stalrange. Now, however, both teeter on the brink of extinction, reduced to a single member each. In fact, the last member of House Dufresne, who officially holds the title of Duchess of this province, is legally dead. She is still up and walking about, however, and even the Empire has declined to try stripping her of her position. This…makes the matter complicated, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Wait, Malivette is the ruler of this province?” Trissiny exclaimed.

“On paper,” Grusser said seriously. “In practice, I handle all of her affairs except the personal. It is really the only way; the populace would never tolerate a vampire’s direct control over them.”

“Where did you think she got that giant mansion from?” Eleny asked, grinning.

“Dufresne, Leduc,” Teal murmured. “Those aren’t Stalweiss names. Nor Tiraan… If anything, they sound Glassian.”

“Just so!” Eleny said, smiling broadly. “You’ve a good ear for tongues. Aye, the history is actually quite fascinating. The earliest Dufresnes and Leducs in the region fled Glassierre due to some politics in the old country; when they came to this continent, they went right to Tiraas, presented themselves to the Emperor and offered their fealty. Well, Tiraas was at that time launching its conquest of this region, and these two were a godsend. Few of the native nobility wanted to risk their own assets against the Stalweiss and their Huntsmen, who were sort of legendary terrors at that time. And here came two brand new Houses from a cold country which was famous for its art and culture despite having to beat back constant incursions of its borders. Who better to conquer and civilize the Stalrange?”

“Sounds like they were on pretty good terms, then,” Gabriel noted.

“At that time, aye, they were,” the gnome replied, nodding. “But that was centuries ago. Ever since, with the conquest long accomplished…well, they were two big birds in the same nest, and fell to infighting as nobles always do. The rulership of Veilgrad and the province passed back and forth between them in the course of just all kinds of intrigues. Toward the end, there, it was widely known the Leducs were practicing some kind of diabolism; in fact, twice that there are records of, the Black Wreath themselves intervened to shut down some project of theirs. But they kept at it, and only House Dufresne, being rulers at the time, had the power to keep ’em in check. Then the Dufresnes were slaughtered in their beds by a vampire and the only heir turned, and the Leducs saw weakness. It got bad before it got better,” she added solemnly.

“She’s quite the historian, is my Eleny,” Grusser said, smiling fondly.

“Lars thinks I tend to natter on and bore the company,” the gnome said, returning his expression exactly. “But it is immediately relevant to the topic! The Dufresnes were wiped out by a vampire; the Leducs were mostly cleared out by the Empire after University adventurers…well, did whatever they did. The last of ’em died off in prison or in shame, most by suicide. There’s one Lord of House Leduc left, moldering away in that mansion, and he has no political aspirations. Then there’s the Lady Dufresne, who has to keep out of politics to avoid inciting a rebellion. That is why Lars effectively runs this province, despite being no aristocrat.”

“That seems…peculiar, if you will pardon my saying it,” Shaeine said tactfully. “Would it not make sense for the Empire to appoint you governor, Mr. Grusser?”

“Politics,” he said with a dramatic sigh belied by his amused expression. “You see, my friends, doing that would establish a precedent. Specifically, that a noble ruler can be removed for such a paltry reason as being totally unfit to govern. The Houses would never stand for that; it’d put fully half of them out on the street if it became Imperial policy.”

“That’s…really weird,” said Juniper, blinking. “I’m not much for law or politics, but wouldn’t that be a really good idea? I mean, for the Emperor to do. Why does he let them push him around that way?”

“On paper,” Grusser replied, “the power of the Silver Throne is absolute. In practice, there’s a lot the Houses could do to make Sharidan’s life miserable if they chose, especially if a lot of them were in agreement on it. He’s very good at keeping them mollified. Among other things, that requires some unfortunate compromises. The issue in Veilgrad is that with as much unrest as this region has suffered, removing a familiar face who is—if I may flatter myself—rather popular and placing another leader in the governorship would be risking serious unrest, possibly verging on rebellion. Thus, it’s in the Throne’s best interests to let the situation stand. He can’t place another House in charge, and he definitely can’t risk the wrath of the aristocrats by simply removing the resident House and putting a commoner in charge.”

“Emperors have done that, though,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Repeatedly.”

“Conquering Emperors have done that,” Grusser corrected her with a smile. “The Tirasian Dynasty stitched this Empire back together after the Enchanter Wars through diplomacy and subterfuge. Sharidan has the backing of the military—no Tiraan Emperor lasts long without it—but he’s not willing to use that against his own people except at great need, and the Houses know it. No, the situation here is undesirable, but stable. Politically speaking, that is. If the escalating issues in this city aren’t brought to a halt, though… It’s impossible to say what might happen.”

“Thank you for explaining all of this, Mr. Grusser,” Toby said thoughtfully. “This answers a number of questions I had about Malivette and her position in the city.”

“My pleasure!”

“So, the question now is, what’s our plan?” Gabriel said, looking around at them.

“First things first,” Eleny said briskly. “Coming here was a good start; you should also check in with the other political powers active in the city. The Omnist temple, the Huntsmen, the Universal Church parson and the Imperial barracks.”

“That would take days if we did it sequentially,” Shaeine observed. “I propose dividing our forces.”

“Yeah, pretty obvious who should go talk with the monks,” Ruda said, winking at Toby. “And of course, we should definitely send Trissiny up to the lodge to chat with the Huntsmen.”

“Is…is she joking?” Eleny asked in a tone of fascinated horror.

“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “If Ruda suggests anything tremendously stupid, you can be sure she is joking.”

“Aw, way to ruin my fun, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said, grinning.

“There’s another thing,” Grusser added seriously. “I presume that you will be wanting to look into the known threats facing the city after you have introduced yourselves to the potential stabilizing forces?”

“Any starting points you can suggest would be very helpful,” Toby said.

“Well…” Grusser sighed. “With regard to that, there is one prospect who stands right between the two categories. Or, rather, in both, at least potentially.”

“A known power…and a known threat?” Fross chimed. “Both? That sounds dangerous.”

“I mentioned there is a surviving member of House Leduc,” Grusser said grimly. “Lord Sherwin keeps to himself, which in all frankness is the best thing I can say about him. I have nothing to prove it, otherwise I would hand him over to the Empire—or, could I contact them, even the Black Wreath—but it is an open secret that he is carrying on his family’s traditions. All of them.”

Trissiny scowled deeply. “You mean…”

“Aye, afraid so,” Eleny said with a worried frown. “You see why it’s a hardship, not being able to brush aside the nobility, here. Why no other noble House has tried to finish them off and seize their territory, when they’d normally be on two critically weakened Houses like vultures on a corpse. The last nobles in Veilgrad are the vampire…and the warlock.”


 

The carriages trundled back up the road to the isolated Dufresne manor in total darkness. Each had lanterns dangling from all four corners, old-fashioned wrought iron fixtures housing modern fairy lamps; they proceeded in their own moving island of cheerful light. It was dimmer in their interiors, which were illuminated only by small lamps that cast a faint but warm glow, just enough for their passengers to see one another. It would probably have been impossible to read by, had any of them been so inclined.

It was a quiet ride, at least for the first leg. Aside from being tired—and full—all of them were processing the various revelations of the day, and contemplating their next steps.

“They seem like such a perfect couple,” Teal said suddenly, breaking the silence. “They were so in sync.”

“Indeed, they appeared to be very much in tune with one another,” Shaeine replied, placing a hand over hers on the seat between them.

“I wonder why he doesn’t just marry her,” Teal said pensively. “Is…interracial marriage that taboo in the Empire?”

“Maybe. Dunno.” Ruda shrugged. “That’s not the issue, though, either way. It’s all about politics.”

“How so?” Trissiny asked.

“C’mon, isn’t it obvious?”

“Ruda,” she said flatly, “I know you are socially adroit enough not to say things like that by accident. You’re not Gabe. Is there a reason you wanted to make me feel stupid for not having your political education?”

“Aw, I didn’t mean it like that, Boots,” Ruda said, affectionately jostling her roommate with an elbow. “You’re right, I’m sorry; I’ve got some bad conversational habits. Nothing personal meant. On the subject, though… The political situation in Veilgrad in a nutshell is that the resident nobles are a menace and a hardship, the Emperor can’t remove ’em because of what it’d mean for the nobility everywhere, and the current acting governor needs to stay in place to keep this very uneasy population from outright revolting. So he can’t be replaced with another House. With me so far?”

“Succinctly put,” said Shaeine.

Ruda nodded. “Well, there’s a simple solution to all of this. If Lars Grusser marries into a House, Veilgrad would get new nobility, which would pacify the Houses, and he could remain in power, which would pacify the populace. He can’t marry Eleny; he has to hope for a political marriage. It’s sad, sure, but…that’s politics. It’s an old and not uncommon story. C’mon, Teal, I bet you know a bunch just like it.”

“Yeah…several of them are among a bard’s standbys.” Teal sighed, turning to stare at the darkened window. Thanks to the interior lights reflecting on the glass, they had virtually no view outside. Not that there was much to see, anyway. “I don’t favor tragedies, myself.”

Shaeine scooted closer and leaned subtly against her shoulder.

“That leaves out another party, though,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Suppose Malivette doesn’t want to give up power?”

“Malivette doesn’t have power,” Ruda said. “She’s only Duchess in name, and everyone knows it. Besides, Malivette strikes me as a weirdo even apart from the undead thing, but I didn’t have the impression she’s in any way stupid. She has to be aware of all this, if she’s not actively in on it. The fact she allows the matter to stand is basically a tacit endorsement of the idea. Unless, of course, there’s more going on that we don’t know.”

“That much is a virtual certainty,” Shaeine murmured.

They froze as a long, mournful howl echoed through the mountains. It hung in the air for long moments, eventually trailing off in a descending note. Moments later, it was repeated from another direction, and then more voices sprang up. Soon, the howls sounded from all sides, carrying on like an eerie choir.

“Wolves,” Teal said softly. “How pretty.”

“We’re prob’ly safe in here,” Ruda noted. “Very few animals will come near an undead. The horses are like…wolf repellent, I bet.”

“Those are not wolves,” Trissiny said quietly. She had twisted her belt when she sat, so her sword was in her lap rather than jabbing into the cushions; now she held its hilt tightly. “This city is in very serious trouble.”

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